Washington distilleries are facing a battle that their alcoholic beverage industry compatriots are not.
This year marks the second time the Washington Distillers Guild (WDG) has pushed for legislation that would allow distilleries to open up two remote tasting rooms and to serve cocktails to customers. And, as this year’s legislative session nears its end and an amendment calling for the ban of minors was added, the guild is concerned it will fail yet again.
“A lot of distilleries in the state, more than 60 percent, are outside of urban corridors like the Seattle-Tacoma area or Spokane area,” Voelsgen says. “There’s not a ton of foot traffic there — the average distillery in the state gets 10 people a week going through a tasting room.”
The legislation WDG is attempting to push through the state is based on current laws for wineries, which are allowed four off-site tasting rooms. Voelsgen says the guild is even proposing to give up right to sell at farmers markets in exchange for off-site tasting rooms.
“There are only five main distributors in Washington,” says Nathan Kaiser, owner of 2bar Spirits in Seattle. “Most of these small craft distilleries don’t have distribution and all their revenue is coming from their tasting room and by limiting that parity it really hurts their ability to run a business.”
Both Voelsgen and Kaiser fear that without the ability to have off-site tasting rooms, distilleries are going to have to make the decision to move out of state. “Last year three distilleries opted to move to Oregon and set up operations there,” Voelsgen says. “In Oregon, you’re allowed five stand-alone tasting rooms.”
PARITY WITH OTHER ALCOHOL
The amendment that would ban minors in distilleries further complicates the guild’s attempt to push through this legislation as many are family-owned businesses.
“It puts tremendous personal pressure on most of us because [we] have kids and tasting rooms are typically run by husband and wives,” says Voelsgen. Kaiser adds that he has three sons of his own he often brings into 2Bar’s tasting room during the summer.
Compared to other states, Washington is one of the most restrictive in its distillery laws. Voelsgen points out that Florida just passed legislation allowing distilleries to have up to eight tasting rooms, full cocktail service and 250,000 gallons of production a year. Washington state only allows its craft distilleries 150,000 gallons of production a year in comparison.
“I think at the end of the day we are simply looking for parity with what breweries and wineries are afforded,” says Kaiser. “We’re not looking for more rights than what they have. Just the same rights and that’s multiple tasting rooms.”